Roll on the future

It’s South Africa-India time of year again. Some of India’s finest dancers, musicians and writers are invading Johannesburg for the Shared Histories festival.

Book lovers are in for a treat too, with a literary festival featuring top Indian and South African writers and artists in conversation.

But why is there all this South Africa-India hoopla? What’s at stake? Why do such South Africa-India interactions matter?

There are, of course, a series of pat answers: Gandhi, colonial rule and cricket. Linked by flows of indentured labour and Gandhi’s satyagraha struggles, the two countries share a history of colonial rule and a passion for cricket. Four billion dollars of bilateral trade and increasing flows of tourists create a compelling mix.

But, you may ask, so what? We share histories, trade and tourists with many other countries. Why is the link to India different?

One persuasive answer comes from security experts and international relations scholars who argue that the Indian Ocean is becoming the major strategic arena of the 21st century. These pundits propose that the shape of the world is changing because of the rise of Asian economies.

Fareed Zakaria, the CNN commentator, says we are headed for a ‘post- American world”. The unilateral dominance of the United States is waning—the focus is shifting eastwards. These shifts are important for South Africans: their consequences will unfold in our backyard.

The Indian Ocean will be the place where the factors shaping a new global order will intersect. In brief, these factors include global energy politics and Sino-Indian competition.

Writing in Foreign Affairs, Robert Kaplan says: ‘Already the world’s pre-eminent energy and trade interstate seaway, the Indian Ocean will matter even more as India and China enter into a dynamic greatpower rivalry in these waters.”

Most of the oil destined for India and China travels along the sea lanes of the Indian Ocean. There is already considerable Sino-Indian jostling to control these shipping routes. This rivalry also plays itself out in African markets and minerals.

There are other potent factors in the mix: Somali pirates, Islamist politics (Al-Qaeda’s operations are against US interests around the Indian Ocean in places such as Kenya, Yemen and the Comoros) and continuing US imperialism (the occupation of the atoll Diego Garcia, from where bombing raids on Afghanistan were launched). It’s not hard to see why the Indian Ocean is being called ‘the centre-stage of the 21st century”.

In future, South Africa will have a lot more to do with India and China. India has the advantage of being more democratic and English-speaking—the more user-friendly option. These shifting global alignments will produce new cultural forms.

South African intellectuals and academics have the opportunity to describe these novel worlds as they take shape. Because these forms will be new, they will be unexpected.

A quick example: one of South Africa’s more successful exports to India is Leon Schuster, king of South African slapstick.

Translated into a range of Indian languages, his recent movie, Mr Bones, was distributed in India where it was a wild success.

How does one begin to explain this?

If we think of South African-Indian interactions, it’s probably in terms of a ‘south-south” paradigm in which we imagine heartening links of shoulder-to- shoulder solidarity between ‘Third World” countries. But Schuster makes no sense in this pious scheme.

The term ‘south-south slapstick” seems a contradiction in terms and certainly won’t help us to understand why Schuster is so popular in India. As the new world order takes shape around the Indian Ocean, we need to redraw our mental maps.

One way to do this is to engage with intellectuals around the Indian Ocean. Such conversations will move us beyond the pieties of Third-Worldism into the complexities and contradictions of a new world becoming visible.

For details on both events contact Isabel Hofmeyr on [email protected] or 011 717 4140/2, or visit www.cisa-wits.

Your chance to engage
The ‘Words on Water: South Africa and India in Conversation” event takes place on September 12 at Wits University and on September 13 at the Wanderers Club.

It brings together leading South African and Indian writers for conversations that move beyond the obvious.

Speakers include Amit Chaudhuri, Angela Makholwa, Andre Odendaal, Arshia Sattar, Ingrid de Kok, Jacob Dlamini, Keorapetse Kgositsile, Leon de Kock, Libby Meintjes, Mandla Langa, Pnina Fenster, Ramachandra Guha, Sarah Nuttall, Shobhaa De, Stephen Gelb, Véronique Tadjo, William Kentridge and Zukiswa Wanner.

On September 16 the colloquium ‘The Indian Ocean: The Coming Strategic Arena of the 21st Century” features Admiral Mihir Roy, Professor Gilbert Khadiagala, Leaza Kolkenbek-Ruh and Captain Frank van Rooyen.

It will take place at Wits University’s Graduate Centre from 12pm to 2pm.


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